Poets have always been enchanted by autumn, not the least because it is the most paradoxical of seasons, first blessing us with the harvest bounty and then confronting us with the stubblefield. Thus, autumn can be appreciated as an extended reminder that every moment in this lovely, fleeting world is at once both bitter and sweet.
Perhaps no literary genre presents readers with a greater wealth of exploration of autumn’s inherently elegiac character than haiku, including this poem by Basho:
on a withered branch
a crow has settled
Two lines of simple description are followed by a third in which the image first amplifies the meaning of its predecessors and then, like a stone tossed into a pond, produces ripples of implication that expand outward in widening circles. The poet reminds us that, for all its deserved reputation for aesthetic glory, autumn is nonetheless the “winding down time,” and every branch and garland, however beautiful, eventually withers, and for all things mortal, night must fall.
To offer a different perspective on the fact that during autumn joyful increase and melancholic decline arrive in a single emotional pulse, I have posted a photograph showing a small branch on, appropriately, the Japanese maple outside my kitchen window. I hope that it provokes viewers into a state of mindful attention, because it affords them a haiku-like visual opportunity to appreciate the overwhelmingly extravagant splendor of autumn in a focused, and therefore more comprehensible way. The eye then sees what the heart already knows: The foliage is at its peak of loveliness just before it falls.
One of my favorite Japanese writers is Sei Shonagon, in part because few authors have shown such a sensitive regard for the unique characteristics of each season. Here is her lyrical tribute to autumn: “In autumn (it is) the evenings, when the glittering sun sinks close to edge of the hills and crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild geese, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.” What a haunting evocation of the evanescent nature of everything that we love! The passage almost forces us to concede, however unwillingly, that the things most meaningful to us acquire much of their significance because they pass so quickly. “The heart is moved.”
Yes, moved: Autumn is at once so heart-lifting and heart-breaking – just like so many people, places, and things that we experience during our brief sojourn through life. It is one of the chief tasks of poets to abet our power of recollection by admonishing us “To love that well, which thou must leave ‘ere long,” as Shakespeare wrote in one of his finest sonnets. And so, let us ponder together both the words of great writers and the crimson-hued leaves in the photograph, devote a moment of quiet attention to their implications, and allow our sympathetic imagination to expand both outward and inward. Then, having hopefully learned something meaningful from such a potentially instructive exercise, we bid autumn farewell, get on with our workaday lives, and prepare ourselves for the trials of a winter sure to come.